In the history of art, few afflictions have generated as much curiosity as Vincent van Gogh’s severed ear. Not Michelangelo’s broken nose, not Degas’s blindness, not even Toulouse-Lautrec’s misshapen body. The story of the ear (and the purported insanity that led to the self-mutilation) endures with the tenacity of myth—and sparks renewed argument whenever the myth gets tweaked. The prevailing account is that on December 23, 1888, van Gogh stalked his housemate, Paul Gauguin, brandishing a razor, but instead of attacking Gauguin, he went home and cut off the lower part of his left earlobe, wrapped it in newspaper, and gave it to a prostitute named Rachel.
In 2001 two Hamburg-based scholars, Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans, proposed a different theory, which grew to book length over the years and was published last year as Van Goghs Ohr: Paul Gauguin und der Pakt des Schweigens (Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence, Osburg). Kaufmann, a retired headmaster with a Ph.D. in history, and Wildegans, who holds a doctorate in art history and works at a cultural foundation, spent ten years sifting through police reports, witness statements, and other material before coming to the conclusion that Gauguin, an expert fencer, sliced off van Gogh’s earlobe with his sword during a fight. To hush up the matter and keep Gauguin out of jail, the two conspired to cover up the crime. The authors argue that the official version of events, based largely on Gauguin’s accounts, is rife with inconsistencies, and that both artists later hinted that the truth was much more complicated.
The media immediately pounced; even morning-news shows devoted airtime to the new theory. Art historians have also ventured opinions, some calling it hogwash, just another layer of speculation added to the already overburdened van Gogh saga. Martin Gayford, author of The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence (Mariner Books 2008), a book about the brief time the two artists lived together, characterizes Kaufmann and Wildegans’s retelling as a “leap into wild conjecture.” Stefan Koldehoff, a journalist and van Gogh scholar who researched the subject for his own book Van Gogh: Mythos und Wirklichkeit (Van Gogh: Myth and Reality, DuMont 2003), describes the new book as “carefully researched and written” but says he has “found not even the smallest piece of truth for that thesis.” On the other hand, Nina Zimmer, curator of 19th-century and modern art at the Kunstmuseum Basel and cocurator of “Vincent van Gogh: Between Earth and Heaven” (at the Kunstmuseum through the 27th of this month), is not quite as negative: “What I like about this book is that it brings new material together and it is well researched, and this is why it’s worth looking at.” In the end, though, she says, “I don’t buy into the new theory. It’s not much more than fun to be looked at as an alternative reading.”
Either way, in the decades since van Gogh’s suicide, in 1890, that ear has taken on a life of its own—from the lowbrow to the literary—inspiring pranks, merchandise, movies, music, album covers, stories, plays, and even YouTube videos. A Google search of “Vincent van Gogh ear” pulled up a staggering 96,900 references, ranging from a restaurant in Union, New Jersey, called Van Gogh’s Ear Café to New York Times columnist Deborah Solomon’s discovery of what she called, in 2000, “a mass-produced souvenir of artistic torment: a curvy, pinkish rubber objet described with typical eBay poetry as ‘Van Gogh’s Ear—squish it, squeeze it!’”
A clutch of videos on YouTube documents the dissemination of the ear legend in digital culture. In one, Genco Gílan, a Turkish artist, offers up the remarkably realistic removal of his left ear with a straightedge razor. Another is an advertisement for the Van Gogh Disappearing Ear Mug in which the ear fades from a self-portrait when the mug is filled with hot liquids. And in a sweetly surrealist video contributed by an eighth-grader, the severed ear morphs into a tree with purple branches.
In the realm of pop music, at least three rock bands have taken their names from the subject: the Brit group Deaf to Van Gogh’s Ear, the American rockers Van Gogh’s Ear, and the Spanish La Oreja de Van Gogh. Perhaps best known among the musical offerings is Joni Mitchell’s famous 1994 album cover for Turbulent Indigo: a self-portrait of the singer-composer with the side of her face swaddled in a white bandage la van Gogh’s two self-portraits with a bandaged ear.
Other offshoots include Matt Swan’s two-character one-act comedy in which the tormented painter admonishes a friend who asks why he has injured himself (“I don’t need to hear to paint!”) and a short story by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar about a failed businessman who tries to bribe his creditor by selling him van Gogh’s ear. The late Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, great-grandson and namesake of van Gogh’s art-dealer brother, once considered producing a film called “Golden Ear” (“Most films about van Gogh are so serious about this humane guy, and they’re boring,” the director told the New York Times in 1995. “I mean, he cut off his ear. He had a venereal disease. He was just a human being.”) And of course the ear episode has figured in many of the films devoted to van Gogh’s life, including Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) and Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo (1990). A Turkish composer, Nevit Kodalli, even put the incident to music in 1957 as part of an opera, Van Gogh—a work described by Time magazine’s music critic as a “weary series of recitatives… daubed with great splashes of instrumental color.”
Jokes and hoaxes abound. “In 2003, on the 150th anniversary of van Gogh’s birth, a British colleague put on his Web site a photo of a glass supposedly containing the artist’s ear,” says Koldehoff. The colleague claimed it had been found recently in southern France and that there was now a dispute between the Netherlands and France as to where it should go as a national treasure. “Of course it was an ironic comment on the big brouhaha over the anniversary,” Koldehoff says, “but several serious news agencies and newspapers printed it as fact.”
All of this raises questions: What do we really know of van Gogh, and how important is his story to understanding his art? And why do theories about the artist—whether they concern his self-mutilation, his supposed insanity, or his suicide—have such a powerful grasp on the public imagination?
“People who have never set foot in an art gallery or an art museum, who don’t know much about artists, do know two names: Leonardo and van Gogh,” says Joachim Pissarro, great-grandson of Camille Pissarro and curator of the recent “Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “One of the reasons that van Gogh is so prevalent is because of these layers and layers of accreted ideas about the craziness. These have created an image of van Gogh that is much bigger than and almost independent of his art. Most people who have read the books and seen the films don’t necessarily look at the work, and the work in that particular context is seen as a symptom of a disorder.
“There are a lot of things we just don’t know about van Gogh,” Pissarro adds, especially when it comes to the source of his mental condition. “Some people say it was epilepsy, some say it was bouts of alcoholism, and there are other theories. What I prefer to do is go through the letters and stay with what we have, which is in itself completely fascinating. Van Gogh was extremely learned, extremely erudite, and passionately well read. He wrote and read in four languages. He was interested in poetry and literary works, comparing novels to other great landmarks in the history of 19th-century art. That’s an aspect of van Gogh that nobody mentions, because it goes against the grain of our received ideas.”
And so the more additions there are to the van Gogh story—from pop culture, medical research, and even serious historical scholarship—the more elusive the artist becomes. Scliar’s narrator seems to express the impossibility of accessing the truth about the man behind the mesmerizing work when he says, in the final lines of the story, “If you examine an ear carefully—any ear, whether Van Gogh’s or not, you’ll see that it is designed much like a labyrinth. In this labyrinth I got lost. And I would never find my way out again.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.